Growing Up Inside: How the Cards Are Stacked Against America’s ‘Youngest Murderers’
In January 1999, siblings Curtis and Catherine Jones were found by police, frightened and hiding in a wooded area near their home in Port St. John, Florida. He was 12, she was 13, and together they had plotted to kill a male family member who sexually abused them, along with their father and his girlfriend, whom they felt didn’t do enough to protect them.
After shooting and killing their father’s girlfriend, they panicked and ran. The two kids went on to become the youngest children in the country to be charged as adults for first-degree murder and were sentenced to 18 years and probation for life.
On Tuesday, now 29-year-old Curtis will be released from prison; Catherine will be released later in August.
“There’s so much I must learn to function like a normal person: how to drive, fill out job applications, text, dress for a job interview, build my credit, obtain life, dental, medical insurance,” Catherine wrote to Florida Today last year. “I’ll leave prison just as clueless as I was at 13."
The cards are stacked against their success outside prison. Studies of youths released from correctional facilities have found that an average of 70 to 80 percent are rearrested within two to three years. Because the Jones siblings grew up behind bars, they have never known adult life outside a correctional institution.
“Florida is the worst state to be a kid in the justice system,” Liz Ryan, founder of the Youth First Initiative, which aims to reduce youth incarceration, told TakePart. “It’s the worst state out there in terms of trying kids as adults, which increases the likelihood they’ll reoffend after release.”
Florida transfers more kids’ cases to adult court than any other state and puts more children in adult correctional facilities than any other state—approximately 2,420 kids each year. And 60 percent of minors transferred were tried for nonviolent crimes, according to Human Rights Watch. Prosecutors are given broad discretion to decide when to try kids as adults, thanks to a state statute. Housing kids in adult prisons and jails is dangerous: They are at the greatest risk of rape of all inmates when housed with adults, and they are 36 times more likely to commit suicide than youths housed in juvenile facilities.
Locking up children severs critical ties to their communities and families, puts them further behind in school, and disrupts their psychological development, Ryan recently told a House oversight committee when she testified on the dangers of incarceration for kids—both in adult and juvenile facilities. Nearly 80,000 kids are in detention on any given day in the U.S. Approximately 4,200 of them are housed in adult facilities.
Over the course of their incarceration, the Jones siblings were housed in both juvenile and adult facilities.
“Unfortunately, most states have made juvenile facilities almost mirror images of adult prisons,” said Mishi Faruqee, a juvenile justice expert at the ACLU. “They’re much more likely to go through the trajectory of committing more crime in the future once they’ve been incarcerated.”
To break the cycle of reoffending, Faruqee said, states should turn their attention to Missouri. In the early 1980s, the state closed its juvenile training schools and other large juvenile facilities. To replace them, the state built a network of small facilities that house 50 or fewer youths to allow kids to stay closer to their communities, and it did away with prison uniforms and solitary confinement. The new facilities, spread around the state, emphasize education and therapy over punishment, with admirable results.
“Missouri’s program helps young people address the issues that brought them into these facilities,” Faruqee said. “They work with families, and they understand adolescent development.” Of the 2,200 kids that enter the Missouri Department of Youth Services system each year, between 84 and 88 percent are “productively engaged” after their release, either in work or in school.
The state has been nationally recognized for its innovative juvenile facilities, which focus on changing the culture inside the facility to better prepare offenders for success after release. While Faruqee advocates for community-based alternatives to incarceration for as many kids as possible, she acknowledged that some serious offenses—such as murder—may call for temporarily keeping kids in custody.
The Jones siblings committed their crime in the wrong state. Only time will tell how they’ll fare after their release.